Unconscious Bias in Recruitment: Blocking Equal Access on the Labor Market

26 Sep, 2023 •

Unconscious Bias in Recruitment: Blocking Equal Access on the Labor Market

Recognizing the Problem and Ways to Move Further Away from Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

It’s not a problem that human beings are biased. The real problem is that the majority of people are not aware of this fact. The lack of diversity in companies is a widely discussed issue, with more than half of HR professionals acknowledging that their current policies fail to improve the situation. The selection approach, both for external and internal candidates, is key to achieving more diversity and an area where many companies fall short. Most talent acquisition processes are (unintentionally) detrimental to achieving diversity goals. This is primarily due to the unconscious bias of professionals involved in the selection of new employees. In this blog, we set a clear definition of unconscious bias in recruitment and how you can reach DEI goals in your organization.

Recognizing the Problem of Unconscious Bias

As the saying goes: “The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist.” In the world of attracting and hiring talent, the problem is unconscious bias in recruitment. Every person is affected by unconscious bias, including recruiters and hiring managers. This bias, often unintentionally, creeps into the selection process. The human brain, wired to process information quickly, tends to make snap judgments based on limited data, such as a candidate’s name or photo. As soon as a candidate’s information, such as a resume, is read, the brain begins to draw premature conclusions. This is not the intention of the HR professional, but it still happens, and it is naive to think it will stop automatically from happening. Solving the unconscious bias in recruiting issue starts with acknowledging its existence.

Understanding Unconscious Bias

There are numerous (cognitive) biases to be distinguished. Some of the most well-known in HR: 

  • Fundamental Attribution Bias: We judge others based on personality or character rather than on the situation. Martin is late for his interview, so he must be a poor planner. 
  • HALO and Horn Effects: We assume that one positive characteristic of a person must mean they automatically have other positive qualities, too. Hilde is attractive, so she must be trustworthy. The Horn effect is the opposite. Linda does not look well-groomed, so she may not be trustworthy.
  • Anchoring Effect: We heavily rely on the initial piece of information as an anchor for all further decisions. The first candidate you meet is disappointing, so the next one must be a top candidate compared to the first one.
  • In-group-out-group Bias: We favor in-group members over out-group members. The interview with Hannah, who like me enjoys running, went great. The conversation with Marjan, who doesn’t exercise at all, didn’t go well – there was no connection. 
  • Authority Bias: We assign more value to and are more influenced by the opinion of an authority figure. For example, Willem is the director, so he must be right.

The Critical First Step to Overcome Unconscious Bias

Objectifying the recruitment process begins with the very first step—applicant screening. Many traditional processes, like CV reviews, inadvertently introduce unconscious bias in recruiting. A resume may contain information such as age, background, or even a photo that can influence early judgments. To mitigate this, it’s essential to focus on the skills and qualities a candidate needs for the job, rather than their background or appearance. This way you shift from an opinion-based process to a data-driven one.

Game-Based Assessments: A Solution

One innovative solution to reducing selection bias is the use of game-based assessments. Unlike traditional assessments with inherent bias, these assessments can measure cognitive abilities, which are more indicative of a candidate’s potential to excel in a role. They are also less influenced by language proficiency and background. By introducing game-based assessments early in the selection process, organizations can prioritize potential over experience and reduce the impact of unconscious bias in recruitment. This approach very much fits in a future-oriented HR policy, where talents are evaluated looking forward instead of backward.

Real-Life Success Stories: Getting Rid of Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

The Municipality of Rotterdam provides a compelling example of the effectiveness of game-based assessments. By forming two selection committees—one reviewing CVs and test results, and another solely evaluating game-based assessments—they achieved significantly different shortlists of candidates. Ultimately, the candidate who excelled in the game-based assessment, despite having less impressive credentials on paper, turned out to be the best fit for the role. And he still is.

Implementing Change: A Promising Path Forward

Recent research by Harvard Business Review shows three new and promising ways to combat unconscious bias by incorporating DEI into decision-making. These make DEI immediately obvious or salient the moment it actually matters most: when consequential decisions about hiring, promotions, and performance evaluation are made.

  1. Hire for more than one job at a time: Collective hiring decisions lead to more choices in favor of diversity. Not surprisingly, when considering that diversity is a group property.
  2. Prompt managers to consider diversity in their promotion process: Making diversity more salient can increase promotions for employees from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds.
  3. Show diversity training videos right before formal people decision: The multinational telecommunications company Ericsson was able to hire significantly more people from underrepresented groups with this strategy. It seems to be way more effective to make people aware of DEI at the moment of decision-making than during onboarding.

How Can We Start Combating Unconscious Bias Today?

Unconscious bias in recruiting may be a part of human nature, but with the right strategies and a commitment to change, organizations can ensure that selection bias doesn’t stand in the way of building diverse, innovative, and successful teams. Let’s strive for fair and inclusive workplaces where everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive. Contact our diversity experts to start eliminating bias from your selection process.